The Partition of India represents a pivotal moment in British history, and the new Voices of Partition resource is aimed at providing sources to teachers so they can gain an understanding of the nature of Britain’s relationship to India and Pakistan following over 150 years of colonisation. Working with A-level teachers Debbie Bogard and John Siblon, who led two Continued Professional Development (CPD) sessions at the British Library in December 2022, teachers were able to explore how oral histories are particularly powerful in opening up conversations and providing different ways of learning and analysing some of the resources at the Library. For this blog Debbie reflects on their experience of leading the CPD sessions...
For the last year, my colleague John Siblon and I have been working with the British Library on a project called 'Unlocking Our Sound Heritage - Voices of Partition’. Drawing on a range of British Library collections (including oral histories and archival documents from the India Office records), this new online resource includes many oral testimonies documenting the run up to the independence from Britain, the period of the partition of India and creation of Pakistan. We were invited to produce a student and teacher guide for the website, which we then delivered in two Professional Development sessions.
The resources provided a valuable opportunity to think about how to work with sources, particularly oral testimony, which is an area that many students (and possibly teachers) might not have encountered before. Source work can be challenging for students, who can often become unstuck and thrown off guard if unable to understand certain words or phrases within a text. Certainly, one common refrain in the history classroom is along the lines of, ‘Why didn’t people in the past just speak normally?’ Whilst this can be overcome in the classroom, struggling with sources can be problematic in high-stakes situations such as under exam conditions, where students can panic and consequently struggle to think clearly and critically.
Within the guide, we adopted a metacognitive approach to source analysis, whereby students are encouraged to think explicitly about the processes of their learning. In relation to written sources, we provided a step-by-step framework, where students are encouraged to ‘think like an historian’ before engaging with source content, along these lines:
Given what the source is, where it comes from, as well as the wider context, what do I expect the source to say?
This process is designed to free up thinking so that students don’t become lost in the source but rather are able to engage with the higher level task of addressing its attribution (including provenance, context and purpose) in order to engage more freely and confidently with what it says.
Similarly, with the oral testimonies, students are encouraged to think about the kinds of questions the interviewer might ask. Examples include:
Given what we know about the wider context, what do I expect the questions to be? And what am I expecting from the responses?
Following listening (typically the testimonies are around three minutes in length), there are follow-up questions, such as:
Was this in line with what I was expecting? Any surprises / interesting omissions? If you were the historian conducting this interview, what would you like to have asked the interviewee?
This is also designed to create a more authentic encounter between listener and testimony, away from the restrictions of typical source-based questions and ways of thinking.
We then ran two professional development sessions, which aimed to introduce teachers to the oral testimonies, as well as modelling the session so that it could then be run in
the classroom. The sessions themselves brought together a wonderful and eclectic mix of teachers, oral historians, educators, archivists, activists, musicians and students. Consequently, the discussions that arose were vibrant and engaging, helping bring the materials to life. One participant introduced us to the concept of ‘deep listening’, whereby the very act of listening is itself an exercise in mindfulness. Another commented how listening to oral sources allowed them to imagine the situation in a way that merely reading the text would not have allowed.
We also discussed the importance of awareness around the nature of the questions asked, and how the methodology of oral history will have changed over time. For example, in the clip of Charles Allen’s interview with the female freedom fighter and activist Kamaladevi Chaddopadhy, the questions focus on the war rather than her own experiences, with one question suggesting that Indians displayed loyalty to Britain in the war, a claim that Chaddopadhy counters with a more nuanced position about lack of consultation and representation.
The opportunity to engage with a plurality of voices also featured in other discussions. In one group, participants noted the way in which the Quit India movement was seen and understood through a child’s perspective, with the testimony from Raj Daswani recalling the five key leaders of Congress before discussing the food that he remembered eating at the time. We discussed how this unusual level of detail is something that could really appeal to and engage students, offering a different angle from the high politics presented through official government records and papers.
Another illuminating conversation focused on how to handle emotionally disturbing content relating to sexual violence and other buried traumas. In particular, the extent to which the classroom is an appropriate place for listening to challenging and turbulent testimonies. One teacher reflected on the importance of engaging with these sources as a way of learning about and honouring these experiences, as to deny them would be to prevent developing a deeper understanding of how partition played out. Overall, the sessions helped exemplify the richness of the oral testimonies and an excellent opportunity for a broader, more complex and nuanced understanding of partition.
There are already some exciting plans for next steps including ideas for students to carry out their own oral history projects in their local communities, as well as a possible project with Welsh Pakistani communities, which would be a fascinating angle on migration stories. As classroom teachers and teacher educators, it was rewarding to be valued for our professional expertise and be given the opportunity to model a ground-up, teacher-driven form of CPD. Thank you to the wonderful learning team at the British Library.
Debbie Bogard, February 2023